Design Thinking – Think Big. Start Small. Move Fast.

Design Thinking, traditionally used by architects and designers, recently gained popularity in business, in which it is applied to define new business models and to plan start-ups’ acceleration. So what’s design thinking is about, and how you could apply it to what you do?

Design thinking means not thinking in sequences, as in typical linear thinking process. At least it’s not what design thinking as a process starts with. In practice of design thinking you move through different mental states, as Tim Brown explains in Change by Design. During this process you use divergent thinking – to create and list options of what you work on resulting in more choices, convergent thinking – to sort and rank options you come to and rank them in order, and finally analytical and synthetic thinking –first to identify some patterns, which popped up during the process, and later to better understand and reassemble them in a meaningful way; so you can incorporate them in what you design.

It might sound pretty abstract, but in practice it is not, especially if you imagine that practicing design thinking relates leading it in a workshop environment, engaging participants with various experiences, including existing and expected customers, to leverage their different points of view and distillate the essence for desired customer experience.

Design thinking is particularly applicable when you project an experience that your customers desire to go through while they search for, purchase, and use your product or service. You can also use it to improve existing products or services to make them more appealing or functional, and to better production and interaction processes.

Nurturing, stimulating, and extracting ideas from design thinking session participants is essential. In order to do that V. Hasley, author of Brilliance by Design, advises to feed the participants with right pre-work before planned session by using videos, podcasts, recordings, workbooks, and lists of questions to reflect upon prior to the session.

Sharing points of view during design thinking session can be about distributing and gathering filled as many sticky notes as possible, but also cutting out pictures from various magazines and newspapers and pinning them to a prepared poster board, or creating your own magazine from headlines and drawings, so you can picture discussed vision.

Its critical to encourage each participant to speak up, share, and contribute during the session. Nothing should prohibit answering at once, reciprocating with careful observation, and listening with empathy, as ethnographic and anthropologic observational techniques stand behind design thinking.

In order to design an ultimate experience you’d like your customers to go through, design thinking uses storytelling, because when customers talk about experiences they tell stories. This is what distinguish design thinking from other marketing techniques, as it doesn’t use customer’s questionnaires and surveys.

Listening to the stories enables you to identify connecting threads, which is essential for design thinking process.

As Patrick Van Der Pijl, Justin Lookitz, and Lisa Kay Salomon noted in Design a Better Business, during design thinking session customer stories are often recorded or videoed, as the key in design thinking process is to discover not only explicit needs, but also non obvious tacit and latent needs relating to what could annoy but also delight your customer.

To add business applicability to results of this stage of the process, you need to organize and evaluate generated ideas. In order to do that, you can draw simple matrix where horizontal axis start with ideas that generate costs and end with those that generate revenue, whereas the vertical axis will start from ideas that are incremental, and end with those that are substantial. See example of such matrix here.

In designing desired experiences, once options are identified and ranked design thinking uses prototyping that enables to create and test expected solution together with your customers in resources efficient approach. According to authors of Design a Better Business what works best are Lego bricks, but you can also use cardboard, paper, napkins, glue, tape, toys, and sticky notes, as they spark creativity to top the process.

Prototyping can also have form of virtual trials. If you design an event you might design several variations of event tickets to find which would work best among targeted audience. In designing a webpage for your business, you could do the same to see which variant would be preferred and attract more visitors. Rapid and cost efficient prototyping as such can also derive from lean start-up approach, which I elaborated on some time ago here.

Prototyping leads us to another key aspect of design thinking–testing the assumptions, which not only need to be listed in order of expected contribution to your success, but also in order to identify the riskiest ones. To do that design thinking uses multiple “why” and “what if” questions toward expected and existing customers to understand their ambitions, needs, priorities, and finally to rank the key assumptions by importance for designed success.

As Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie in Design for Growth explain one of the most important elements of prototyping in design thinking is customer co-creation, which is about engaging customer into asking specific question and providing concrete feedback to prototyped products or service incl. options they would choose and improvement they would apply.

One of the brightest examples of design thinking practitioners I admire is Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation operating in Mayo Clinic in the US, which is one of the most renowned leaders in health care. Mayo Clinic is nonprofit organization running medical centers and research organizations with over 57 000 employees and over USD 700 mln research, development & innovation budget. Practicing daily design thinking by Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation resulted in multiple implementations of improved services and processes in Mayo Clinic, such as The Smart Mirror in bathrooms for older patients providing electronic reminders on prescribed medications, Asthma Connected Care App enabling asthma patients to communicate with healthcare provider, or Jack and Jill Rooms, which are medical examination areas redesigned to enhance comfort of patients.

Those who would like to deepen secrets of design thinking and start practicing it in business context can study facilitator’s guide from Institute of Design at Stanford, or take Design Thinking for Innovation MOOC available at Coursera.